The recitals, exams, competitions and conventions are done. If you don’t have a summer program running, the studio might feel pretty quiet. Too quiet. Saying goodbye to your senior students can leave you with empty nest syndrome, but know that you’re not alone!
Seán Curran (department chair of New York University’s Tisch dance program) and Aram Manukyan (teacher at the School of Alberta Ballet and previous artistic director of Alberta Ballet II), talk about the seniors they’ve seen off, and how they deal with goodbyes year after year.
On preparing for life after school
“I’ve been Chair for six years. In the beginning of my tenure, I wanted to swoop in and save all the ones who were struggling. And I still want to do that, but I’ve realized that a lot of those people might not make it to graduation with or without me. There’s an incredible amount of self-sabotage. I’d say, ‘Get out of your own way. Get the job done! If you want a result, take an action.’ Some of them, maybe because they’re afraid, don’t. I found now that I’m wanting, I’m needing, to take the incredible amount of energy I put into the kids who are struggling, and focus more of it on the kids who are thriving. Because they sometimes get ignored. I notice this in the exit interviews. Some of the kids in top levels with perfect attendance feel neglected. As a faculty member, we think, ‘They’re doing great; leave them alone.’ But no, they need love and attention, too.”
“As a teacher, you obviously are invested in the success, the accomplishments of the students. Because your goal is to prepare them for whatever their professional life might bring. But trust me when I say I graduated from one of the best schools in Russia, and no school can give you everything that you will face when you graduate. But what the school can do for you, can teach you, is to have an open mind and a little bit of gutsiness, and that as professional as you might be, you’re always a student. You learn every day. So you have to be open to receive something new or a new way of doing it from the person in front of you, whoever that might be, to apply yourself fully.”
On helping with the job hunt
“As a faculty, we’re really looking for ‘who could this one dance for, where might they land.’ We’re not an employment agency, but if we can recommend a dancer to somebody, we do. There’s a lot of wanting to help them get from school to a job, you know, a bridge. And there are so few kids, so few dancers actually leave school with a job.”
“When I was the Director of Alberta Ballet II for three years, I did anything and everything possible, from recommendation letters to calling colleagues in the field to promote my students (the deserving ones obviously). ‘Deserving ones’ in the sense of the ones who will go on and be hungry. As much as you teach and push, students coming to the end of their programs have to be hungry.”
On anxiety and sympathy
“I do remember my life during ballet academy, vividly. September 1 was the first day. On the first day of my last year, I knew there would not be any more September 1s for me. And that sad feeling set in, that anxiousness, what it’s going to be not like next September 1. So as a teacher, I prepare myself, I prepare my students. Perhaps to my graduating class I speak a little bit differently, with a little more understanding of that anxiety, and psychological support. It can come in the form of tone of voice you use, or the way you serve your corrections. It’s a trying time. You’re facing a profession that is perfectionist. But you have to find your niche, and there is one for you, if you’ve gotten to that level, and you’re driven. If there are some lessons you’ve missed, rejection will teach you in the first couple of years.”
On giving credit and giving up control
“I would describe myself a bit as a control freak; I would like to control everything. I mean I can’t, I don’t, I’m working on that. So It’s a real exercise in patience and in taking the ego out of it. Because you want to say, ‘Oh, I helped make this person,’ or ‘I gave this person that.’”
On being a surrogate parent
“I became a parent when I was 19, 20 years old. Having raised three children did help me tremendously to understand what tough love is. How to be tough on your students without them ever doubting that you love them. Because if you didn’t love your students, you wouldn’t care and you wouldn’t push them. There are a lot of teachers who ignore that. I wouldn’t call them teachers then. They put in the hours, they go home, and they try not to be involved emotionally. And to me, it is emotional. It is. You have to be involved with your students’ wellbeing. To me, that is the teaching. Even when injuries happen. As a dancer, you have to be not just good, not just exceptional, but you have to be a little bit lucky. And sometimes people are not lucky. I know exquisite dancers who were not lucky and didn’t get a contract, and my heart goes out to them because I care about them, I know them. I know them and they didn’t make it and it’s okay. Whatever they learned will be used. The universe doesn’t have trash. If you create value, that value will go around.”
On how to say goodbye
“I’m a pretty emotional guy, and I do deal with a lot of separation anxiety. If it’s a group of students that I’ve been with for three years leaving, there is a sadness or a poignancy. But I do what I call ‘letting them go with love’. Let them go to make lives, to fail, to succeed, to prosper.”
By Holly LaRoche of Dance Informa.